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Interview with Adam Ondra, talking about economy and solidarity

Interview by Marta Manzoni

Photos Lukas Biba & Petr Pavlicek

We had the honor to interview live on our Instagram profile Adam Ondra, considered one of the strongest climbers of all time, is the first person in history to climb grade 9c, with the Silence route.

With a degree in Economics, Adam Ondra knows five languages and is an eclectic climber, excelling in the toughest single pitch, bouldering, plastic competitions – he won both the World Championship and the World Cup in both lead and bouldering – and in 2016 he repeated the Dawn Wall, on El Capitán, Yosemite, considered the toughest long route on Earth.

We talked about many topics: his life in lockdown in the Czech Republic, the importance of solidarity and appreciation of small everyday gestures, his vision as an economist about the stalled decision making situation in the European Community, his ideas about future projects on Himalayan walls and around the world, how he lives the year of waiting following the decision to postpone the Olympics, his hopes for the future and much more.

We wanted to know, how do you live this lock-down? 

Here in the Czech Republic there are some pretty strict restrictions, but the situation is much less serious than in Italy. There seems to be a positive feeling and little by little some activities are reopening. The gyms are still closed, but I’m very lucky because I have a small gym at home, so I can train with some compromises clearly. It looks like in a week’s time you’ll be able to climb on rock as well. There are some positive aspects to being in quarantine, it’s a quiet period, I stay at home, I train, recover, read, cook. Life is good.


What are your passions besides climbing?

Climbing, then bouldering… I don’t have many because I already climb a lot, I dedicate 6/7 hours a day to that, then I have to eat and recover and at that point the day is over. I like to cook, read, take walks in the forest and even travel, but now it’s definitely not possible.


You have impeccable ethics and you are a practically perfect model of athlete and sportsman. You’ve always cared about solidarity and you’ve also shown it during your career, for example when you became a bone marrow donor at the age of 17. I wanted to ask, do you think that solidarity still exists?

I think there is, and it’s very important in this situation. Our country, the Czech Republic, people are in solidarity and I think it would be easy to break the restrictions, but most people stay at home, that’s right.


We know you have a degree in economics, you know 5 languages, you live in the Czech Republic, but you are testimonial of an important Italian town. In the end you are a real citizen of Europe. Let’s try to take off Adam Climber’s clothes and try to wear those of Adam the economist. What do you think about this situation of decisional stalemate on the part of the European community and would you be able to deal with it?

Then my country is coping well, but there is no doubt that the economic consequences will be great. It depends so much on when they open the restrictions, because it is certainly better for the economy, but it is always risky to do it too sooner. We are so lucky because the government does not have so much debt, other nations have more problems like Italy. What is not very good for me is that the European Union is not helping now. I like to feel like a European citizen and it is a real shame that it did not play its role during this crisis. It should probably have forced some countries to put restrictions first and now help those countries that need them. Now there is certainly a risk that the countries will close more, the borderless state of Europe is unlikely to go back intact and to go back to the way it was before.

Have you ever been fascinated by the idea of climbing a Himalayan wall?

A Himalayan wall with rock is something that fascinates me so much. For example, the 8000m doesn’t inspire me, because I like climbing on rock with shoes, but I would like to do a little more mountaineering in Patagonia or Greenland. In the future, I would like to combine what I have learned in sport climbing with climbing at higher altitudes. But I certainly feel that I still have a lot to learn from this type of climbing, so I’ll start slowly, step by step. But I’ll certainly continue to prefer the slipper part on the rock, even though in this kind of situation you really make a lot of effort before you get to the wall.


Have you ever thought about doing free solo?

For me it’s too big a risk, I respect those who do it because it’s a very personal matter for them. Alex Honnold does it for example for personal reasons, not to show that he has more courage. I’ve fallen too many times when I wasn’t expecting it. It’s a risk I don’t want to take.


The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed, how are you going to deal with this year of waiting? Do you really want to take part or do you think it is something you have to do because you don’t want to miss it?

Surely with the fact that it’s the first time of climbing in the Olympics I know I don’t want to miss it. Even when I was 8 years old I dreamed of climbing in the Olympics. I didn’t think I’d have to wait 20 years to see it. The fact that they’ve postponed them… two years ago I would have thought “oh God, what a horror” because it means a year of speed training that I don’t really like, but it also means that I have one more year of training to improve. Now I’ve also found a new training method that helps me manage all three disciplines. Also, now that I don’t have the Olympics during the summer, I can start climbing rock earlier and even more often and this will certainly help me on a motivational level, but also on a mental level, which is a fundamental part for me. I find it important to have a good balance between mind and body, between training and serenity.


Do you already have in mind a route where you will go as soon as it’s over?

Yes of course, I dream of going where I have a project in a granite area near Prague and maybe this will be a 9a+.


You are very young, but have you already imagined what you will do when you will retire from competitions?

I definitely want to keep climbing as long as my body allows me to. Actually I don’t know if after the Olympics I will continue with the competitions or if I want to dedicate myself 100% on the rock. I’ll see, but I certainly don’t want to have an office job, I want to feel free and I’m lucky because climbing will always be the way I can support myself.

So this business degree, why?

I wanted to study economics to make sure that no matter what happened I was sure I could have a good job to count on, but also because I always liked to know the world. Economics is certainly a point of view from which you can learn more about the world. It’s also something that I use all the rounds in my life as a professional athlete for example with sponsors.


In the climbing world you are among the most popular, how do you consider this media exposure?

For me it’s always a question based on what I want to do. Choosing good sponsors is important. I want to be an Ambassador for products and companies that if I were a customer myself I would be the first to buy them. Then there’s a big mess with the media, but surely you have to accept it, it’s not for everyone but I’ve gotten used to it. It’s important to have private days and sometimes it’s complicated in the gym, but I’m still satisfied. For me, however, this is not a big price to pay because it allows me to do what I love so it’s fine.


Have you managed to find a balance between shooting, event nights and much more? How can you say no?

I don’t really know how to say no, that’s why I have people doing it for me.


Tell us about the attempt to climb the Via Salathé on El Capitan Yosemite on sight and also ask us what your next similar project will be.

I wanted to do a visible route on El Capitan that hadn’t been done. I chose that one because it is the most spectacular and historic and I wanted to do it in a day. It was a very ambitious goal. I had a fantastic partner, Nicolas Favresse, who was very fast because doing all that wall in one day is difficult and you have to be fast, but of course you have to be fast too. When we got to the key point, the super famous “HeadWall” pitch where there is a perfect crack with the key pass after a 40m of climbing. When I got there I was really tired and nervous and there was only one attempt. In the end, I climbed pretty well, but my physical part wasn’t really ready and I flew, a safe but long enough flight and at that point I was really whipped. But I realized that my day had been really good, full of climbing one of the most incredible walls I had ever done. So when we finally got to the top, we were sad, but also full of joy to have had this incredible experience. It was also great for me to touch this legendary crack, I could see it in the pictures and wonder what it was like.

For the future for sure making El Capitan on sight remains a dream so let’s see. I’m going back.


You’ve traveled a lot in your life, do you have a favorite place?

There are so many places in the world, but if I have to choose one that has really remained in my heart I would say Flatanger in Norway where I did the first ascent of Silence. Also, what makes it so special is that the first time I got there in that cave there was a lot of “junk” and I stayed there nailing a lot of pitches and it’s nice to see the others climbing what you did.

“I’m afraid things will never be the same again. Surely we will find something that will be better, maybe more solidarity, we could appreciate more even just going out to dinner with friends.”

Do you like nailing?

Very much, because if I nail something in a world where everything is already nailed, however, it always remains a small part of adventure. For example, you look at a route from underneath, you fall and start to put the nails and in doing so you find out if there are holds, if it will be possible and how it will be. I like to touch, try the holds, feel how they are, it fascinates me too much. In Flatanger the holds are really incredible and it’s really impossible not to be fascinated.


It takes a lot of imagination to climb and trace, would you ever imagine this lock-down?

No, I never thought about it. In a situation where we were free to go anywhere, to go back to not being able to travel anymore and even having to stay at home, for my heart that has this need for freedom would have been really hard to imagine.


You said you are an optimist, you said that human beings are made to overcome crises, what are your hopes for the future?

Of course I hope we can go back to doing what we like. One advantage of this crisis is that we discover more things than we knew. Maybe being at home with your family is a satisfying part of it too. Life isn’t just work or climbing, it’s fuller in reality. I’m afraid things won’t be the same as before. Surely we will find something that will be better, maybe more solidarity, we could appreciate more even just going out to dinner with friends. Often we are too focused on the big goals, but maybe they are not that, we should also appreciate the small everyday things.

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